Chapter 2: Social Heredity and Progress: Notes on the Humanist-Christian Value of Education

The Future of Mankind
by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Chapter 2: Social Heredity and Progress: Notes on the Humanist-Christian Value of Education

I. Education and Life

To the eye of Physical Science, one of the most remarkable characteristics of Life is its ‘additive’ quality. Life propagates itself by ceaselessly adding to itself what it successively acquires -- like a memory, as has often been said. Every living being passes on to his successor the being he himself inherited, not merely diversified but accentuated in a given direction, according to the line to which he belongs. And all the lines, whatever their nature, seem in varying degrees and each after its own formula to move a greater or lesser distance in the general direction of greater spontaneity and consciousness. Something passes, something grows, through the long chain of living creatures. This is the great fact, or the great law, whose discovery has transformed our vision of the Universe during nearly two centuries.

At what levels and by what mechanisms does this predetermined additivity of characteristics show itself in the living being?

An essential part of the phenomenon must take place at the moment of reproduction. The wave of life in its substance and with its particular characteristics is of necessity communicated to the child in and through the fertilised cell, the issue of the parents. Fundamentally, biological evolution can only be an effect of germinal transmission. That is why the science of Life concentrates more and more upon the study of cellular heredity.

But a difficulty arises. As we have said, it appears to be the case that every zoological chain observed over a sufficiently long period can be seen to modify itself in a given direction (shape of limbs or teeth, relative development of the brain. etc.), so that certain specific characteristics are found to have increased in the part of the chain under observation. Something has undoubtedly been gained, yet it would seem that none of the elements in the chain, taken separately, has actively contributed to this gain. Although it was accepted without discussion in the early days of evolutionary theory, the question of the germinal transmission to the children of characteristics acquired by the parents has become one of those most hotly disputed among geneticists. No irrefutable evidence of any such transmission has yet been found, and there are now many biologists who flatly deny that it takes place. But this amounts to saying that the individual links in a biological chain passively transmit a germ evolved in themselves, without in any way affecting it by their own activities: the bodies (the ‘somata’) grow out of this ‘germen’ which is inexplicably endowed with its own power of evolutionary development; they are its dependents but incapable of modifying it. It is a highly improbable hypothesis, having the grave disadvantage that it deprives the individual of all responsibility in the development of the race or the particular branch of which he is a part.

For the purpose of examining the additive mechanism of Life in its vital, active form I propose to look in a direction which the theorists of heredity seem to have ignored. No complete light has yet been thrown on the secret processes taking place in the microscopic recesses of the cell. Let us turn instead to a phenomenon that we can clearly see because it is on our own scale, and note what happens in the field of education.

Education. The transmission by example of an improvement, an action, and its reproduction by imitation. We are curiously inclined to minimise the significance and the import of this function in the development of Life, for a variety of reasons. Education is so widespread a phenomenon, so clearly visible, humble and commonplace, that there seems to be no reason to look for any mystery in it. Moreover, it appears to be so exclusively associated with the human condition that it is hard to attribute to it any universal biological value. Finally, it is a fragile and superficial structure, shedding a haphazard light on our lives, maintaining and propagating itself by grace of circumstances that are in themselves precarious and changeable: how can we compare it to those deep, underlying determinisms which impose an ineluctable course upon the advance of Life?

These various arguments or appearances, confusedly perceived and accepted, undoubtedly divert our attention from the ‘educational factor’, causing us to dismiss it as an ‘epi-phenomenon’ unworthy of the attention of the naturalist and the physicist. Yet there is not one of them that cannot be revised or reversed to sustain a precisely opposite thesis.

Education is infinitely commonplace. . . . But what could be more ordinary than the three dimensions in space, the fall of a body, the propagation of light, the growth of a plant? What does the fundamental progress of science consist in, except the discovery of the organic, structural value of what is most general and everyday in our experience?

Education is a specifically human phenomenon. . . . No doubt, where it is a question of reasoned education! But we have only to observe the animal world with minds more open to the ideas of birth and evolution to perceive, in this as in every case, that the ‘human’ could not exist if it did not contain, transfigured in terms of mind, a property common to all animals, of which the beginnings are to be detected as they vanish into the past. The dog, the cat or the bird train their young in countless ways to hunt, to fly or to build a nest. The monkey does much more. And how are we to explain the remarkable behaviour-patterns of the beaver, or of insects, except as the outcome of accumulated and transmitted experiences and discoveries? Such phenomena become apparent to us only where the creature under study has attained a sufficient degree of spontaneity, still more if it lives in a group. But what more is needed to persuade us that, at least for practical purposes, education is a universal biological function, co-existent with the totality of the living world?

We may be tempted to add, nevertheless, that education is an extrinsic mechanism, superposed at one remove on the transmission of life. But Bergson has pointed out the arbitrary nature of the dividing line drawn by commonsense between the zone of ‘organic’ determinisms and that of ‘spontaneity’ in the course of embryogenesis. When the chick pecks its way out of the egg, is it the ‘germen’ or the ‘soma’ that guides its beak? The same insidious question, perfectly justified in the case of ‘ontogenesis’, arises again and no less embarrassingly when it comes to the generative process itself. At what point does the mother cease to engender her child? Is it when she first feeds it, after giving it birth? Or is it when, having weaned it, she teaches it to know and hunt its prey? In fact, and although it operates successively on two different levels (that of the purely organic functioning of the mother, and that of her conscious action applied to another consciousness) what takes place is one and the same process pursued externally from one end of the chain to the other. This leads to that; and this is probably capable of acting upon that. We have spoken of the biologists who reject the germinal transmission of acquired characteristics. Have they considered the case of the countless insects which, dying without having known their progeny, nevertheless transmit behaviour-patterns to descendants which they never see? If these patterns, as it seems we must assume, were discovered by spontaneous experiment at a time when, owing to a different arrangement of the seasons, or of lives or metamorphoses, the parents knew and reared their young, then this in fact means that the results of education finally entered into the germ itself, endowing it with attributes as physically predetermined as size or colour or any other of the inherited characteristics of the species or breed.

So we reach the following conclusion, which seems to me valid. Far from being an artificial, accidental or accessory phenomenon in its relation to living creatures, education is nothing less than an essential and natural form of biological additivity. In it we can perhaps catch a glimpse, still in the marginal, conscious state, of individual, germinal heredity in process of formation: as though organic mutation at this stage took the form of a psychic invention contrived by the parents and transmitted by them. And also -- this is the least that can be said -- we see heredity pass through education beyond the individual to enter into its collective phase and become social.

The first and most evident outcome of this view of the matter is the singular extent to which it co-ordinates and unifies such ideas as we have been able to arrive at on the subject of life in general. But it has another advantage which I particularly wish to dwell upon. It sheds a new light on the importance and dignity of everything that affects the education of Mankind.

2. Education and Mankind

Life had attained through Man the highest degree of inventive choice in the individual and social organisation in the community. For this double reason the phenomenon of education as it affects Man possesses a greater amplitude and clarity than in any other context and calls for more exhaustive study.

Breathing the atmosphere of human education as we do from the moment of our birth, we have little inclination or time to consider what it represents, either on its own account or in relation to ourselves. Yet if we pause to look we can find much to make us marvel. The following experiment is worth making. Let us imagine ourselves to be divested of everything that we owe to life in human society. To begin with we must eliminate all the modes of communication devised by science. But we need to go much further than this. We must cut ourselves off from industry and agriculture; we must forget our history; we must assume that even language does not exist. In short, we must get as close as we can to that almost inconceivable state in which our consciousness, divorced from all human association, stands naked in face of the Universe. What is then left of our essential self? Have we merely shed the garments from our body, or a part of our very soul?. . . Now let us reverse the process, reclothing ourselves piece by piece with those layers of education which we cast aside. But in doing so let us seek, however confusedly, to re-create what we can of their history. What immeasurable toil went into the weaving of each garment, what endless time, what trial and error, what a countless multitude of hands! Thinking of this we may be disposed to say, ‘It is all an accessory and very fragile. A single catastrophe, bringing the whole of that secular edifice down in ruins, could cause Man to revert to his earliest state, when Thought was first born on earth.’ Yet how can we fail to perceive in that patient and continuous amassing of human acquirements the methods and therefore the very stamp of Life itself -- Life which is irreversible, its inevitability born of the improbable, its consistency of fragility.

Let us rather accept the fact: Mankind, as we find it in its present state and present functioning, is organically inseparable from that which has been slowly added to it, and which is propagated through education. This ‘additive zone’, gradually created and transmitted by collective experience, is for each of us a sort of matrix, as real in its own way as our mother’s womb. It is a true racial memory, upon which our individual memories draw and through which they complete themselves. Applied to the particular and singular instance of the human species, the idea that education is not merely a ‘sub-phenomenon’, but an integral part of biological heredity, derives unquestionable verification from the very coherence which it brings to the whole landscape, and the relief into which it throws it.

But we must logically go a step further. The additivity of organic life, as science now tells us, is something quite different from the superposition of characteristics added to one another like the layers forming a sedimentary deposit. Life does not merely ‘snowball’; it behaves more like a tree, which acquires successive rings according to the particular fashion of its growth, in a predetermined or directed manner. To accept that education is one of the factors, or better, one of the forms of the process which we denote by the very generalised and rather vague term evolution, is therefore to imply that the sum of knowledge and acquirement retained and transmitted by education from one generation to the next constitutes a natural sequence of which the direction may be observed.

And this is precisely what happens.

It may seem difficult, at first glance, to distinguish any kind of order in the jumble of experiments, organisations and theories whose incessantly growing mass forms the baggage-train of the human caravan. Purely quantitative progress, the sceptics tell us. But if we stand back a little, and look at the phenomenon as a whole, we can see that all is not confusion. For it then becomes apparent that this accumulation of features, bewildering at close quarters, does in fact outline a face: the face of Mankind gradually acquiring the knowledge of its birth, its history, its natural environment, its external powers and the secrets of its soul.

‘That which takes place in all of us when, as we grow up, we become aware of our family past, our present responsibilities, our ambitions and our loves, is nothing but the brief recapitulation of a far vaster and slower process through which the whole human race must pass in its growth from infancy to maturity.’. . . We have heard this said many times; but have we pondered it to the point of realising the full intensity and extent of its truth? It denotes the reality of a growth of Mankind through and above the growth of individual men. . . . No doubt it is true, if we judge by the written word, that we cannot claim to be more intelligent than our fathers. But it is undeniable that, thanks to their accumulated efforts, we have a better understanding than they could possess of the dimensions, the demands, potentialities and hopes; above all of the profound unity of the world within and around us. In the passage of time a state of collective human consciousness has been progressively evolved which is inherited by each succeeding generation of conscious individuals, and to which each generation adds something. Sustained, certainly, by the individual, but at the same time embracing and shaping the successive multitude of individuals, a sort of generalised human personality is visibly in process of formation upon the earth. It seems that where Man is concerned the specific function of education is to ensure the continued development of this personality by transmitting it to the endlessly changing mass: in other words, to extend and ensure in collective mankind a consciousness which may already have reached its limit in the individual. Its fulfillment of this function is the final proof of the biological nature and value of education, extending to the things of the spirit.

3. Education and Christianity

Since these lines are intended for Christian teachers I must now transpose the ideas I have outlined into the context of Christian supernatural belief. How is this to be maintained, and to what extent can it fulfil itself in this new field of Creation?

By definition and in essence Christianity is the religion of the Incarnation: God uniting Himself with the world which He created, to unify it and in some sort incorporate it in Himself. To the worshipper of Christ this act expresses the history of the universe.

But how does it operate, this gradual conquest and assimilation of Earth by Heaven? In the first place quantitatively, by the addition to the Mystical Body of an increasing multitude of human souls, ‘until the number shall be complete’. But also qualitatively, by the steady growth, within the bosom of the Church, of a certain Christological perspective. Through the living tradition of a faith and a mystique the Christian organism diffuses or expresses in itself an ever more awakened sense of Christ present and active in the fulfilments of the world. We cannot continue to love Christ without discovering Him more and more. The maturing of a collective consciousness accompanied by numerical expansion: these are two aspects inseparably linked in the historical unfolding of the Incarnation.

And so in Christianity we again come upon that mysterious law of additivity and social heredity which in every field governs the processes of Life; while at the same time the fundamental role of education is again manifest, as the human instrument of divine instruction. But a new and fascinating prospect also emerges. As we have said, human endeavour, viewed in its natural’ aspect, is tending towards some sort of collective personality, through which the individual will acquire in some degree the consciousness of Mankind as a whole. Viewed in its ‘supernatural’ aspect this endeavour expresses itself and culminates in a sort of participation in the divine life, whereby each individual will find, by conscious union with a Supreme Being, the consummation of his own personality. Is it conceivable that two cases bearing so much resemblance can be wholly divorced from one another? Or are these two trends of human consciousness, one towards Christ, the other towards Mankind, simply related phases, on different levels, of the same event?

To postulate the truth of the second alternative -- that is to say, to accept that in terms of the divine purpose the two impulses are one -- is to define in its essentials, and in all its splendour, the attitude of Christian humanism.

To the Christian humanist -- faithful in this to the most sure theology of the Incarnation -- there is neither separation nor discordance, but coherent subordination, between the genesis of Mankind in the World and the genesis of Christ in Mankind through His Church. The two processes are inevitably linked in their structure, the second requiring the first as the matter upon which it descends in order to super-animate mt. This view entirely respects the progressive effective concentration of human thought in an increasingly acute consciousness of its unitary destiny. But instead of the vague centre of convergence envisaged as the ultimate end of this process of evolution, the personal and defined reality of the Word Incarnate, in which everything acquires substance, appears and takes its place.

Life for Man. Man for Christ. Christ for God.

And to ensure the psychic continuity, at every phase, of this vast development embracing myriads of elements strewn throughout the immensity of time, there is a single mechanism -- education.

All the lines join together, complete themselves and merge. Everything becomes one whole.

Which brings us to this final summing up, wherein is revealed the gravity and unity, but also the complexity, of the seemingly humble task of the Christian educator:

a It is primarily through education that the process of biological heredity, which from the beginning has caused the world to rise to higher zones of consciousness, is furthered in a reflective farm and in its social dimensions. The educator, as an instrument of Creation, should derive respect and ardour for his efforts from a profound, communicative sense of the developments already achieved or awaited by Nature. Every lesson he gives should express love for, and cause to be loved, all that is most irresistible and definitive in the conquests of Life.

b It is through education, by the progressive spread of common viewpoints and attitudes, that the slow convergence of minds and hearts is proceeding, without which there seems to be no outlet ahead of us for the impulse of Life. Directly charged with the task of achieving this unanimity of mankind, the educator, whether his subject be literature, history, science or philosophy, must constantly live with it and consciously strive for its realisation. A passionate faith in the purpose and splendour of human aspirations must be the flame that illumines his teaching.

c Finally, it is through the medium of education that there ensues, directly and indirectly, the gradual incorporation of the World in the Word Incarnate: indirectly, in the degree in which the heart of a collective Mankind increasingly turned inward upon itself is made ready for this high transformation; directly, to the extent that the tide of Grace historically released by Jesus Christ is propagated only by being borne on a living tradition. But the teacher who seeks to be wholly effective in transmitting these two influences, the humanising and the Divine, must be as it were overwhelmed by the evidence of their inseparable, structural relation. To have experienced and understood, in order to teach others to experience and understand, that all human enrichment is but dross except inasmuch as it becomes the most precious and incorruptible of all things by adding itself to an immortal centre of love: such is the supreme knowledge and the ultimate lesson to be imparted by the Christian educator.

These three propositions complete a logical structure whose perfect harmony proclaims its truth.

In the present day human education is spreading its net over the earth on an unprecedented scale and by means of unprecedented methods of expression and diffusion. Never have there been so many libraries, periodicals, schools, universities, laboratories -- or pupils! And it is remarkable that in this magnificent whole, proportionate in scale to the new age which we are entering, there is no institution, other than Christianity, that seems capable of endowing the immense body of things taught with a true soul. Because he alone has the power to invest human endeavour and enrichment with positive aspirations and a positive objective, the Christian teacher alone is in a position to fulfil, both in the consciousness he employs and the consciousness he transmits, the total function of the educator.

1938. Études, April, 1945